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Love, Unexpectedly: Surprisingly Delightful 'Bridges of Madison County' a High-Water Mark for Marriott Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

The Bridges of Madison County 
Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Nick Bowling
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru August 13

Beyond loving theater of many types--and most of all, musicals--I'm often intrigued by how local self-producing venues (and/or troupes) determine what shows they're going to a stage in a given season or year.

This is particularly so when it comes to the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which--unless things have changed since I read this factoid--boasts the largest subscriber base of any theater in the U.S.

I first went to Marriott in 2000--not so incidentally the year I began to voluminously embrace live musical theater--to see Evita, at that point a show 21 years past its Broadway debut. 

Assuming the theater's Show History dating back to its 1980 origins can be trusted, the in-the-round venue at the Marriott Resort had previously staged Evita in 1988, and also did it in 2016. 

Though it seems Marriott Theatre has always tried to mix up its show offerings, I don't think I'd be insulting anyone to suggest that well-known classics of the musical theater canon have been its stock and trade--with shows like The Music Man, West Side Story and My Fair Lady occasionally recurring--and to a certain this remains the case. 

But, understandably, in order to retain and satisfy its existing, traditionally older subscribers--both those who mainly want the classics and those who have already seen them enough to appreciate something new--as well as bring in new season ticket holders and ad hoc attendees with a variety of preferences, the theater has seemingly expanded its focus and oeuvre in recent years.

Perhaps due to its drawing power, Marriott Theatre has been able to offer audiences the first regional productions--or close to it--of Broadway hits such as The Producers, Hairspray, Legally Blonde and Les Miserables, the latter being one of the best shows I've ever seen there. 

But they've also commissioned & created brand new shows (Once Upon a Time in New Jersey, Hero, October Sky), reached deeper into the canon for more rarely-staged oldies (On the Town, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, She Loves Me, City of Angels), presented a younger-skewing show like Spring Awakening as a subscriber add-on, and recreated screen-to-stage adaptions (Sister Act, Elf) not long after their first national tours.

While I've never been a Marriott subscriber and haven't seen everything, I've made a point of getting to several of their off-the-beaten-path efforts. (Only recently have I been graciously invited to see & review every show).

I've considerably liked several and have typically applauded the daring to do something different in my reviews. 

Yet, truth be told, few of the original or obscurer musicals have wowed me as much as phenomenal Marriott takes on known entities like La Cage aux Folles, Man of La Mancha and Mamma Mia

Currently and up next, Marriott has slotted two recent Broadway flops, The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas, both created by the same well-regarded composer/lyricist--Jason Robert Brown, who also wrote Parade, presently quite well-done at Glencoe's Writers Theatre--but the type of name-brand titles that can make one wonder, "Does everything need to be turned into a musical?"

While I again found Marriott's programming choices gutsy, I can't say I wasn't a bit dubious before arriving at Bridges on Wednesday night. 

So I wouldn't blame anyone for being a bit dubious about this @@@@@ review, but I honestly believe the theater's attempts to mount something phenomenal beyond the tried & true has never been more fully realized.

I don't think I can quite say this is the very best thing I've ever seen in Lincolnshire--Les Miz and Man of La Mancha are simply better musicals, delivered superbly at Marriott--but between the show itself and its cast, direction, costuming, scenery and the performances, I found this to be a grand slam. 

That it was so surprisingly so makes it even better. 

Perhaps it was because I was sitting five feet from the stage at Marriott as opposed to the upper balcony of the cavernous downtown Oriental Theatre, but though I had seen a sublime rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic The King and I just the night before and declared, "It's quite possible you won't see The King and I done any better elsewhere," I actually enjoyed myself more witnessing The Bridges of Madison County onstage for the first time.

This isn't to say there are songs anywhere near as delectable as "Getting to Know You" or "Shall We Dance." Brown writes sumptuous tunes, but more of the drive-the-story than hum-along variety.

Just in reading the Playbill pre-show, I was impressed by the caliber of the cast, which seems akin--on paper and in performance--to what you might expect on Broadway or a full-Equity first national tour.

I still recall Broadway vet Kathy Voytko being fantastic years ago in Stephen Sondheim's Passion at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and in Les Miz at Marriott (alongside her husband, John Cudia), and she is simply fantastic here as Francesca Johnson, an Iowa housewife born in Italy who follows her soldier husband to back to his farm, circa 1965. She isn't unhappy as the mother of two, but aware that certain dreams have gone unfulfilled.

As no surprise to those who have read Robert James Waller's 1992 mega-selling novel or seen the 1995 Bridges of Madison County screen adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, just as Francesca's husband, son and daughter have headed to a state fair without her, a ruggedly handsome, mildly iconoclastic photographer for National Geographic named Robert Kincaid ambles up her driveway asking for directions to one of the famed covered wooden bridges of Madison County. (Here, if the link works, are some of those bridges as photographed by me in 2013.)

Playing Robert is Nathaniel Stampley, who has starred in The Lion King, The Color Purple and Porgy & Bess on Broadway and was truly sensational heading Man of La Mancha at Marriott just last year, also under the direction of Nick Bowling.

Along with having one of the best singing voices I've ever heard, Stampley exudes an easygoing charm that never allows the adulterous affair between Robert and Francesca to feel cheap.

I read the book years ago near its release--supposedly it has sold 60 million copies--and saw the movie much later after visiting Iowa, and wasn't overwhelmed by either.

I'm unable to cite specifics, but won't debate suggestions of mawkishness in how the novel and film presented the clandestine, extramarital romance.

But onstage, in these hands, abetted by other superlative performances--including Bart Shatto, who humanizes Francesca's husband Bud in a way that doesn't make one go, "She's married to a jerk so why not?"--a believable case is made for the possibility (likelihood?) of decent people being smitten & stimulated beyond longstanding & largely gratifying monogamy...and acting on it without seeming abominable or even immoral. 

I'm neither married nor a hardcore moralist, so I don't mean to sugarcoat adultery or how anyone might view this depiction, but whereas an entanglement such as Francesca's and Robert's could easily feel tawdry, Voytko--employing a fine Italian accent--Stampley and director Bowling never let it.

Beyond Shatto, who has played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on tour and Broadway, excellent work is done by Wydetta Carter as Francesca's lovable yet nosy neighbor Marge, whose husband Charlie is well-played by a frequent favorite of mine, Terry Hamilton, who doesn't even get to use his estimable vocal abilities.

The same can be said--just to illustrate how deep this cast is--about Nick Cosgrove, who played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys on Broadway and tour but has a relatively minor, non-singing role here.

As Francesca's and Bud's children, Michael and Carolyn, Taylor Hake and Brooke MacDougal also merit note.

Two nights after seeing The Bridges of Madison County, which came after a bit of Spotifamiliarization with the Broadway cast recording, I can only name "To Build a Home," "Wondering" and a song that seems not to be named "Just One Second" but repeated those words in its refrain.

But with the wonderful voices of Voytko, Stampley, Shatto, Carter, Emily Berman and others, everything sounded delectable in person, including "Home Before You Know It," "What Do You Call a Man Like That?," "Another Life," "The World Inside a Frame" and "It All Fades Away."

Far more than upon taking my seat, I understand why director Nick Bowling--who hails from small-town Iowa himself--said of Brown's score:
"It's the kind of music you fall in love with the first time you hear it."
The decision to employ still images of Iowan landscape across the the theater's back walls works well thanks to Projection Designer Anthony Churchill, and while I would've liked to have seen photos of some of the actual bridges, Jeffrey D. Kmiec's inventive set design includes a skeletal yet impressive onstage bridge.

The costumes by Sally Dolembo are first-rate while often appropriately understated, and while I can't delineate the responsibilities of Music Director Ryan T. Nelson versus a Musical Staging credit for William Carlos Angulo, clearly they, the musicians and everyone involved in this terrific show deserve to share in the praise.

Obviously, I'm not telling you much of what unfolds or revealing Francesca decision when torn between Robert and her family.

Yet while timelines get rather rushed near the end, which could possibly be handled a bit more smoothly--I don't know how much is, or has to be, indebted to the source novel--I  clearly feel this iconic love story translates exceptionally well to the Marriott Theatre stage despite it lasting just 3 months on Broadway and my never having been a Bridges acolyte. (The musical's book was written by Marsha Norman.)

While I certainly wouldn't mind seeing this show again and am already looking forward to Honeymoon in Vegas--and also plan to revisit the movie version of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years--I applaud Marriott's artistic team for not only being a bit adventuresome in programming shows but, clearly in this case, getting it so right in every respect.

The result is a bridge--from the tried & true to the new & terrific--almost anyone should enjoy crossing.

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